Damaged Wild Birds Find Rescue, Rehab Clinic in New York

Rita McMahon
Wildlife rehabilitator Rita McMahon has a face-to-face with a kestrel at her Upper West Side apartment in New York City. For years, McMahon has used her apartment as a recovery ward for injured and sick wildlife. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

The second time I met Rita McMahon, she was in her new rescue center for injured wildlife on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s raining birds today. We’ve had about a dozen brought in,” McMahon said, bringing the clinic’s total to “at least 70 at the moment.”

She was feeding a tiny, mite-ridden starling with a plastic syringe. Volunteers learning how to handle injured birds looked over her shoulder.

When the Wild Bird Fund opened last month, it was the city’s first wildlife rehabilitation center. This was good news for McMahon, because when we initially met, she had been running the operation for 10 years out of her brownstone apartment, a space shared with husband, son and a few dozen injured or sick birds.

McMahon teamed up with Karen Heidgerd, administrator of the nearby Animal General, to start their own facility. McMahon herself is a retired television consultant, but she also is licensed to rehabilitate wild birds.

“We want to be the central facility for New York City for the care of injured wildlife,” Heidgerd said. “That includes animals that come into our space that don’t belong here, like foxes and deer.”

Injured and ill animals, especially birds, are brought in by people who find them on city sidewalks or upstate highways.

The animal rehabilitators have treated possums, snakes, turtles, flying squirrels, bats and an injured beaver, fished out of the East River.

“The police brought her in,” McMahon recalled, “but she didn’t make it.”

City Threats

The main patients are birds. New York City is home to more than 350 bird species, both permanent residents and temporaries on the migration trail. Avians are up against particular threats in the city -- skyscrapers that block flight paths, speeding cars, wet cement. They also face more typical threats, like cats.

Treating an injured bird isn’t easy. I watched a seagull with a damaged wing undergo physical therapy. The sole paid staff member at the center taped the bird’s beak shut, then took the creature on her lap and administered flexing exercises. Later I noticed that the caregivers keep a fencing helmet on hand to protect their eyes from feistier patients.

Sick birds are tested for lead poisoning.

“We’re trying to figure out how they are getting poisoned,” McMahon said. “From the soil or peeling paint on a ledge or even the air or water, the environment.”

Chukar ‘Sport’

The rehabbers think lead poisonings are clustered in specific neighborhoods, and they have enlisted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to study the issue. When they have a large enough sample, say 300 cases, the city’s Department of Health will look into it.

The clinic will be both a rescue facility for wildlife and an educational center for humans. I learned that chukars, small plump birds, are raised in the outer boroughs for sport.

“Game birds,” McMahon said. “Released to be shot.”

There were three at the clinic the day I visited, one from Queens and two from Brooklyn. They arrived separately but now were clustered together, moving about on the clinic floor, mingling with the injured gull, cooing pigeons and a resplendent pheasant. A baby squirrel watched from a cage.

A female red-tail hawk was treated for injuries after being hit by a car on Interstate 84, but she wouldn’t stay long. Certain birds -- owls, hawks, falcons -- are too much for the clinic to handle.

“We’re not equipped to truly rehabilitate and release raptors,” Heidgerd said.

Seeking Release

The center has an arrangement with the Raptor Trust in Millington, New Jersey, where large birds go for full recovery and, one hopes, a successful release back into the wild.

That is the goal for all the patients here. “We want all of them to go free,” McMahon said.

The Wild Bird Fund is a nonprofit, funded by individual donors and occasional grants. It has benefited from its proximity to Animal General across Columbus Avenue, where the rehabbers can use the X-ray equipment, gratis.

The fund’s clinic cost $330,000 to construct, and McMahon reckons annual operating costs will run at least $250,000. A single, anonymous donor contributed roughly that amount, so fundraising and grant-writing are continual efforts. Rent alone in the 1,300-square-foot space is $8,500 a month.

“We’ve got to make that every month,” says McMahon.

To help them do that, donate via the Wild Bird Fund website: http://wildbirdfund.com/about/.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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